Home » Fall 2010First Person

How Nixon, Campus Protests and Alexander Heard Still Inspire Social Change

by John Gaventa, BA'71 2 Comments

I live in Sussex, England, though most of my work takes me to poorer parts of the world in Africa, Asia or Latin America. The College of Arts and Science, from which I graduated almost 40 years ago, often seems a long way away. But when I learned last year of the death of Chancellor Alexander Heard, I began to reflect on the connections between my years at Vanderbilt and my work in international development today.

The late ’60s and early ’70s were turbulent times on American campuses, and Vanderbilt was no different. In April 1968 during my freshman year, Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis. Within hours, National Guard troops rolled down West End Avenue to set up camp in Centennial Park. With other Vanderbilt students, I joined Fisk University students in a peaceful vigil in downtown Nashville. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated, 74 days after he had spoken to a packed Memorial Gym.

Robert Kennedy at Vanderbilt (1968)

These were life-changing events, which caused me to rethink my studies. The College of Arts and Science offered an interdisciplinary major, and with the encouragement of my advisers, I linked courses in philosophy, political science and sociology under a broad theme of the philosophy and politics of social change. I had vague thoughts that this would prepare me to work on issues of social justice, poverty and human rights. I was taught by wonderful professors with whom I stayed in touch after graduation, including John Compton, Lester Salamon and John McCarthy.

In 1970, at the end of my junior year, I was elected student body president. The U.S. invaded Cambodia, and campuses across the country, including Vanderbilt, erupted in protest. Students were killed at Kent State, Jackson State and in Lawrence, Kansas. Chancellor Heard was recruited by other university presidents to lead an independent mission to the White House to sensitize the Oval Office on campus unrest. The chancellor asked me along as his special assistant.

Chancellor Heard and Gaventa in Washington, D.C. (1970). Their offices were in the Executive Office Building near the White House.

That summer in Washington was quite an education. One of the best parts was working closely with the chancellor and learning from his incredible work discipline, attention to detail, and belief in the importance of deliberation and listening to different points of view before reaching decisions. He was a man of greatness, with an unwavering commitment to fairness and tolerance, a man who was willing to take stands based on what he believed was best for the university, nation and world. I was privileged to witness his courage and leadership firsthand.

But working in the White House during what was later known as the Watergate era also exposed me to the uses and abuses of power. I returned to campus a bit disillusioned with what I had seen. I researched international scholarships, which led to a Rhodes scholarship. Before I left for England, I was elected a young alumni trustee on the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust. I spent the summer with the Student Health Coalition, which worked with poor communities in rural Tennessee and Appalachia. I thought that maybe grass-roots change, rather than Washington politics, was where the hope might be for the future—well, for my future at least.

Working in the White House during what was later known as the Watergate era also exposed me to the uses and abuses of power.

Little did I know how these various steps would later come together. Residents of a poor East Tennessee mining community whose lives and land had been adversely affected by a British-owned mining company asked me if I could find the London owners of the company and “tell them how bad things were.” I tried to respond to that request—a process which led to a documentary on their situation, aired nationally in Britain, as well as to my Ph.D. thesis. Later the thesis became a book, Power and Powerlessness in an Appalachian Valley. It continues to be a text for students worldwide and has sold over 35,000 copies. This wouldn’t have happened without the Vanderbilt connections.

In the midst of this work, I discovered the Highlander Research and Education Center, a small nonprofit in East Tennessee. Since the 1930s, it had served as a training ground for social action and played a key role in the civil rights movement. When I finished my degree, I was asked to start a research program there. For almost the next 20 years, my wife (whom I met in Oxford) and I worked to link our research to grass-roots social action on poverty, environmental and social justice issues across Appalachia and the rural South.

While at Highlander, I was awarded one of the first MacArthur Prize Fellowships, which provided five years of much-needed funding. The fellowship allowed my family and me to travel to Scandinavia, India, Nicaragua and other countries to study how grass-roots, participatory approaches were used to tackle social issues and what we could learn for rural America.

Campus protest over Heard’s role as an independent adviser to President Nixon (1970)

I have been with the Institute of Development Studies, based at the University of Sussex, since 1989, first as a visiting fellow and now as a professor. My work takes me to many countries, still linking research and writing to action, training and consulting with nonprofit/non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and teaching graduate students, many of whom are community development workers and social activists internationally.

In 2006 I was invited to become chair of the board of Oxfam GB, Britain’s largest overseas NGO, which provides humanitarian relief, supports grass-roots development programs, and advocates on issues like climate change, poverty and social justice in more than 70 countries. When interviewed for this post, and asked about my previous board experience, I thought back to my years as a young Vanderbilt trustee, and all I had learned from that opportunity.

In my writing and teaching, I find myself still referring back to the work of the wonderfully stimulating professors who encouraged me to structure an interdisciplinary major on social change and who supported my career even when I had left campus. In leadership roles, I draw on my experiences with Chancellor Heard. He was not only a leader, but also a mentor and teacher, representing the best tradition of what a liberal arts education ought to be. 

On reflection, maybe the College of Arts and Science is not so far away from my life and work these days in Sussex.

photo credit: Historic images are from the files of Vanderbilt University Special Collections and Archives


  • Anne Lucas said:

    Hey, John! Anne Crowder Lucas….great job! Proud of you!

  • Robert Giles said:

    Marie Cirillo, Eagan, TN, led me to your book “Power…” complaining that there has been little feedback to her suffering community. I shared the book with Jon Low who pointed me to this blog.
    I’m trying to get Rural System, Inc. (www.RuralSystem.com) started, believing it may be the only way to solve some of the problems of the rural areas of the world that we have seen, perhaps starting in the Clearfork valley.

    Coalfield social and environmental problems remain but they will soon be worse. A combination of your wonderful education, insights, and experiences with “for profit” motivations (proposed)for increased diverse employment, small community stability, and improved natural resource management seem badly needed. Pleading for education, social responsibility, and a land ethic have not worked well enough. OXfam and Rural System may be a means for the massive changes needed. I hope so.